He nodded. “You didn’t want to.”
He was right. “I don’t want to hurt you, Gabe.”
His jaw clenched but his tone was gentle. “And I don’t want you to feel pressured because I decided I couldn’t hold back any longer. I’d just like to ask if you’d think about things. About us. If there’s any part of you that feels the same way about me . . .” He trailed off, his gorgeous dark eyes suddenly sad.
She trembled, the confession stumbling past her lips. “I did. I do. I felt something.” Her face heated. “The kiss.”
He lifted his hand again, his finger tracing the line of her jaw in a tender caress. “Good. I know it’s complicated. But God, I want to give you so much, if you’d only give me a chance.”
A shudder shook through her. Why hadn’t she noticed such vulnerability when he looked at her? She had mistaken the fierce protectiveness that shimmered from his aura as arrogance. What other mistakes had she made judging him? It was as if the world she’d known had just been torn down to the foundation, and it was up to her to rebuild it.
And in that moment, she had a sudden need to kiss him again, to be held in his arms and experience the same pop of desire tangled within a beautiful safety—the perfect combination. The urge was startling in its intensity. This was brand new to her, and she didn’t know what she was ready for.
“I think we both need to be open and honest. I wanted you to kiss me,” she said, tilting her chin up. “I’m just not sure what comes next.”
He nodded. “We can talk about it. What you feel comfortable with. I can give you time to think.” A small smile touched his lips. “I’m not expecting you to suddenly admit you have the same feelings I do. I just don’t want to hide mine anymore.”
She touched his hand. “I don’t want you to. But I need some space and time for a bit. Okay?”
“Okay.” He turned to go, then paused. “We can talk more later, but I want you to know whatever happens, I won’t let it affect Sunshine Bridal. I swear it to you, Bella.” With a last, lingering look, he grabbed the bag he’d gotten from Taylor and walked out the door.
His words and his scent and his taste surrounded her. She groaned. Her body throbbed with an ache she hadn’t felt in forever, and her head felt like it was ready to explode with her swirling thoughts.
Switching off the lights, she went to bed, hoping for a few hours of darkness and silence.
But she dreamed of Gabe, and the way he’d kissed her, and the sweet promises she suddenly wanted to believe in.
“We have a problem,” Bella said.
Gabe tried not to panic, but it had already been a long-ass day. This morning, he’d driven two hours to the greenhouse to pick up the right tree seeds for the favors, not trusting they’d be delivered on time. He had hit traffic so he skipped lunch, then met Bella at Sally’s Stationery Store, where they’d crammed together at a tiny table to pore through huge manuals of paper samples until they found the perfect bamboo parchment to create the Dr. Seuss quotes. They were heading to Aloha for an acai bowl when she stopped short on the sidewalk, gaze trained on her phone.
They hadn’t mentioned the other night. Sucked immediately into work, he was grateful there wasn’t any awkwardness between them. Of course, they’d been stuck in a small space, heads together, thighs touching, while he desperately tried to focus on paper instead of kissing her again. But he’d gone over and over every detail of their encounter, and he didn’t regret a second.
Kissing Bella for the first time had been worth the wait. And now, there was nowhere for him to hide. The truth was out, and it was now up to her.
He shook his head and refocused. “Is it a problem that will delay lunch?”
“Maybe. I got a text from Adele. It says: Darlings, I forgot to mention the birds. I’d like Dr. Seuss birds. Kisses and thanks.”
He waited for more, but she stopped. “Wait, that’s it? She wants Dr. Seuss birds? What does that even mean?”
“I don’t know, but let me call Stacia.” She dialed, hitting “Speaker,” as they walked.
Thank God the assistant picked up. “Bella, I figured I’d be hearing from you.”
“Hi, Stacia. Can you give me more details than what was in Adele’s text? What type of birds? Is she talking doves to release after their vows?”
“No, she’s decided birds could be a fun touch for the reception, especially if they look similar to something from a Dr. Seuss book. She doesn’t care how they are incorporated, or how many; she’s leaving all the details up to you.”
Bella halted in her tracks, staring at him in bemusement. “I doubt the bookstore will allow birds inside,” she said. “That could cause a problem.”
“Do your best, we believe in you. Sorry, have to go. Text me with any other questions!”
The phone clicked.
Gabe cursed. “You gotta be kidding me. She’s pulling a prank.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Why would she want birds swooping on guests and pooping on their head? I’m not doing it. I’m telling her no.”
Her voice soothed. “Let’s grab something to eat and see what we can do. You can’t focus when you’re hangry.”
She marched in front of him like a woman on a mission, and his gut did that flip-flop thing. He liked that Bella knew his tendency to get irritable when he hadn’t eaten for a while. It gave him hope that he was slowly growing more important to her.
They ordered two acai bowls and sat at a picnic table inside. The crunch of granola, tart berries, and floral raw honey began to calm his nerves.
“First, let me call Housing Works and see if it’s even possible,” she said. “You start researching bird types.”
He ate, grumbled, and hit the internet. There were plenty of weird, colorful birds, but most of them were from overseas and couldn’t be shipped over in time. Parrots were a possibility. They were vividly bright and some spoke, but nothing screamed Dr. Seuss.
He hit a few other key words and began getting dragged deeper into the bird world.
Bella sighed and dropped her phone. “Okay, we can have birds, but they have to be caged and can’t be flying free around the store.”
“I don’t know if that’s good news or bad.”
“Me, either. Find anything?”
“What about yellow canaries, like Tweety Bird?”
She shook her head. “That’s Bugs Bunny, not Dr. Seuss. I think she’s looking for something unique. Adele would never choose something so ordinary.”
“Flamingos are cool.”
“They’re also gigantic and can’t be caged.”
“Right. Well, I’m not getting into a damn bird costume. Santa was bad enough.”
The giggles that exploded from her made him grin, the sound full of such abandoned joy he wished he could keep it on repeat. “I love your laugh,” he murmured, caught up in the sparkle of her blue eyes. “It reminds me of all the beautiful things in the world that surprise me.”
She sucked in her breath as the ease twisted into intimacy, the seething crackles of connection igniting between them. And this time, it wasn’t one-sided. He caught the flare of heat in her eyes before she had time to hide it, recognized the tremble in her lips and the sudden flush in her cheeks. She was thinking about their kiss.
She was finally thinking about him.
He cleared his throat and backed off. For now. “Okay, I found a few, but they’re not in the US. We can do parrots—maybe a toucan? Macaw?”
“Still too ordinary. But if we’re forced to, maybe we can have a bunch of birds sing a wedding song? That’s different.”
He arched a brow, then caught the lift to her lower lip. “Thank God you’re kidding.” He chased a variety of bird images on his laptop, reworded some phrases, and clicked on a picture. “Hey, this one is the Victoria crowned pigeon. Damn, it looks like a Dr. Seuss bird. Check it out.”
He turned the screen. The bird was a deep, vivid blue-gray, with a purple chest. Black ink framed its face like a mask. A magnificent sprawl of feathers fanned out on the top of its head, the lacy white-tipped scrolls forming an elaborate headdress.
“That’s it,” she said, tapping the image. “Where do we get them?”
“Originally from New Guinea—rare in the pet trade. Crap. Wait, there are some held at various zoos. Think Cape May has any of them?”
She snorted. “I doubt it. We certainly can’t have birds shipped overseas. I know we have the budget, but that’s just too much. Why didn’t she ask for a tiger? It would have been easier.”
“I’d still rather stick with birds—no liability issues. Hey, it says they have some in New York, at the Central Park Zoo!” He read the information with growing excitement. “That’s doable. We can borrow them for the ceremony and return them the next day. If they allow us.”
Bella tapped her lower lip. “The negotiations on this are going to be delicate. I’m sure they don’t just rent out their birds. Do you know anyone over there?”
He shook his head. “Nope. But I bet someone in Adele’s crew does. Let’s call back Stacia.”